French The Past Tense with avoir

Overview

The French irregular verb avoir, which means "to have", is one of the most frequently used of all French verbs. Avoir is also an auxiliary verb, which means it's used to form compound tenses, such as the passé composé.

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The past tense is one of the most useful grammar tools for everyday conversations. To talk about what you did yesterday, over the weekend, last summer, or just a couple minutes ago requires knowledge of the passé composé in French. The passé composé literally means the “compound tense,” or the past tense that is made up of two components.

To conjugate a verb in the passé composé, you should follow the formula below:

Subject            +          Auxiliary Verb            +          Past Participle             +          Agreement

Now, what does this formula mean?

Subject = Who or what the sentence is talking about. As we know, the subject can be any noun, person’s name, or subject pronoun (Je, Tu, Il, etc…)

Auxiliary Verb = In English, the auxiliary verb is called the “helping verb.” The helping verbs we use in French are either avoir or être. Most often, avoir is used. The auxiliary verb is conjugated for the subject. Review how to conjugate avoir in A1.1 Module 4.

Past Participle = The past participle is a component of the compound past tense that shows an action has been done in the past. In English, common past participles end in -ed. Some examples include “baked,” “smiled,” or “kicked.” In French, there are regular and irregular past participles. Regular past participles come with regular verbs, which we learned throughout the modules in A1.1 and A1.2. The ending of each of the regular verbs is removed and then replaced.

Regular Past Participles

-er verbs → -é parler → parlé étudier → étudié habiter → habité-ir verbs → -i   choisir → choisi finir → fini réussir → réussi-re verbs-u   attendre → attendu perdre → perdu répondre → répondu

Irregular Past Participles

VerbPast participleEnglish
avoireuhad
boirebudrunk
comprendrecomprisunderstood
connaîtreconnuknown
croirecrubelieved
devoirhad to
direditsaid
écrireécritwritten
êtreétébeen
fairefaitdone/made
lireluread
mettremisput
ouvrirouvertopened
pouvoirpubeen able to
prendrepristaken
savoirsuknown
voirvuseen
vouloirvouluwanted

Agreement: Agreeing the past participle with the gender and number of the subject is done by adding –e, -s, or -es. However, this is most often done only when être is used as the auxiliary verb. You will learn about when to use être (as opposed to avoir) in the following Module. For this lesson, we can disregard the “Agreement” part of the formula.

Examples: The following sentences are conjugated in the passé composé and labeled by color according to the formula.

J’ai regardé un film hier.                                            I watched a movie yesterday.

Tu as fini ton repas.                                                    You finished your meal.

Elle a attendu le train.                                                 She waited for the train.

Nous avons fait une promenade.                                We took a walk.

Vous avez lu le journal.                                              You read the newspaper.

Ils ont ouvert la porte.                                                 They opened the door.

Negation:

As we know, when you want to negate a sentence in the French, you need to place the “ne” and “pas” around the verb. In the past tense, the “ne” and “pas” sandwich the auxiliary verb, as it is the conjugated verb in the sentence. A common mistake among beginners is placing the “ne” and “pas” around the past participle. The past participle is no longer the conjugated verb of the sentence. In this lesson, the “ne” and “pas” sandwich avoir.

Je n’ai pas regardé un film hier.                                             I didn’t watch a movie yesterday.

Nous n’avons pas fait une promenade.                                   We did not take a walk.

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